“Mzungu!” This oft-heard cry directed at travelers comes from colonial times when the British were traveling from Mombasa port to Nairobi and back. To the Kenyans at the time, all the British looked the same and so they thought it was the same person going around in circles. Mzungu means something that rotates! Tourism in Kenya has come a long way since then and this article will look at its development from early traders to the growing industry of today.
Around 800AD, Arab traders arrived under the command of the Sultan of Zanzibar. Mostly slave traders, these visitors were not the most welcome in Kenya’s history. The Portuguese took control of the coastal area in the 16th and 17th centuries, but the Arabs soon took it back.
In 1895, Kenya became a British protectorate. Tourism began with the colonial settlers in the early 1900s. The settlers enjoyed going “on safari” to hunt The Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and buffalo). Luxury camping with numerous servants was the standard, and they either traveled by motor car or on horseback. The movie Out of Africa has some excellent scenes of a typical safari during this time.
In the 1960s and 70s tourism throughout the continent was hit by independence struggles, but the hunting safari remained popular.
Shortly after independence, the Kenyan government realized the tourism potential of the country and the impact on the nation’s economy if the industry were to be developed. The main obstacle however was the lack of qualified people. So the government, together with the Swiss Confederation, established a training program that produced the first Hotel Management students at Kenya Polytechnic in 1969. In 1975, the Kenya Utalii College was founded as a dedicated hospitality and tourism training institute.
Also in 1975, the Africa Travel Association (ATA) was established to assist the new African nations develop their tourism infrastructure. In 1980, the Association for the Promotion of Tourism to Africa (APTA) was born out of the ATA. It seems to have much the same objectives, namely to promote the education of tourism to African businesses and to promote Africa as a destination to the rest of the world.
In the wake of the 2007 elections, inter-tribal violence caused upheaval in Kenya. Although none of the violence was directed toward foreigners (it was tribes fighting to have their man in the presidency) it impacted the industry significantly. Tourism slumped by about 50%.
Onward and Upward
Despite the violence early in the year, April 2008 saw Kenya win the Best Leisure Destination award at the World Travel Fair in Shanghai. In 2010 Kenya received over one million arrivals, a record number to that time.
Last year, both President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice-President William Ruto pledged their commitment to growing Kenya’s tourism industry during their inauguration speeches. Currently, Kenya is receiving approximately 1.5 million tourists a year. But Ruto stated that this government is committed to growing that number to 3-5 million to turn around the economy and increase jobs for young people.
At the 2013 World Travel Awards (Africa), Kenya was well-represented among the winners. The Kenya Tourist Board won Africa’s leading tourist board award. Nine accommodation categories were taken by Kenyan lodgings in categories such as eco, green, meetings and conferences, spa, and tented safari camp. The Maasai Mara was named Africa’s leading national park.
On the world stage, Kenya was also well-represented in the nominations in the categories: golf destination, tourist board, eco-lodge, green hotel, new hotel, resort, spa resort, and private game reserve. Kenya won the World’s Leading Safari Destination.
Kenyan tourism is growing from strength to strength. Long gone are the hunting safaris; now the only shots taken are with a camera. Despite the terror attack and airport fire last year, Kenya has been recognized globally as a leading destination.
Security remains an issue for many travelers coming to Kenya but, with the government’s renewed commitment to developing the industry, it is a safe place to holiday. And as the general population recognizes and profits from the economic benefits of tourism, the support of the nation will only increase Kenya’s attractiveness as a destination.